Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali has ridden himself into fourth place overall at the Tour de France with just one more day left in the Alps, the defending champion attacking from more than 50 kilometres out to overhaul lone leader Pierre Rolland of Europcar and ride away to victory at La Toussuire.
Chris Froome of Team Sky retains the race lead on a day when a mechanical problem saw him briefly lose contact with his rivals and later, isolated from his team mates, he also had to respond to an attack from second placed Nairo Quintana, the Movistar rider taking 38 seconds back from the 3 minute 10 second he was behind Froome at the beginning of today’s stage.
Nibali, seventh overall this morning with a deficit to Froome of 8 minutes 4 seconds, made his move on the toughest climb of the 138km Stage 19 from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, the Hors Categorie Col de la Croix de Fer, just as the Team Sky man suffered a mechanical issue that briefly saw him distanced from the group containing the overall contenders.
With Geraint Thomas, fourth on GC after yesterday’s stage, struggling today and dropping down the overall standings, Froome had just Wouter Poels to help him on the upper slopes of the Col de la Croix de Fer.
However, he managed to rejoin the Movistar pair of Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, respectively second and third overall at the start of the stage, as well as Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador, ahead of the summit.
Rolland crested that first, but Nibali was hunting him down and caught the Frenchman on the day’s penultimate climb, the Category 2 Col du Mollard, and left him behind with 16 kilometres remaining of the final ascent to La Toussuire.
Behind, Quintana launched an attack with a little more than 5 kilometres remaining, only Froome able to respond but unable to close down the Colombian, who would finish 44 seconds behind Nibali and 30 seconds ahead of Froome.
The group containing Valverde and Contador came across the line nearly two and a half minutes behind Nibali, who jumps to fourth overall.
Tomorrow’s Stage 20 tackles the Col de la Croix de Fer again, this time from the opposite direction, ahead of a summit finish at Alpe d’Huez.
Ahead of what is likely to be another explosive battle tomorrow, Froome’s advantage over Quintana is now 2 minutes 38 seconds behind, with Valverde the best part of 3 minutes further back.
Stage winner Vincenzo Nibali of Astana, who says he wasn’t aware of Froome’s problems when he attacked
It's been a difficult Tour de France for me, you've seen it. I've had trouble in the first week. I've done better in the second week. Every time I attacked, I paid for my efforts in the finale.
It was hard again today but we've done a great job as a team with Michele Scarponi in the first breakaway, Tanel Kangert in the second because I wanted to have someone to help me at the front.
It was our plan to raise the rhythm on the Croix-de-Fer. It wasn't simple but an attack from far out was the best solution.
I haven't seen Froome had a problem. I looked behind because I was looking for Kangert. We didn't receive any such info via radio. All we heard was time gaps and when I got to know that I had an advantage of 2.20, I stabilised it.
I've had a great support from the crowd, by Italian and French fans. I thank them warmly. I feel better this week. I have the same rhythm and the consistency as last year but I'm not as explosive.
It's difficult to compare the years. We're humans, not machines. Alberto Contador is also not as his best after having done the Giro. We can't always win.
Race leader Chris Froome of Team Sky, who had a different view of Nibali’s attack
Towards the top of the Glandon [the summit of which lies 3km before that of the Croix-de-Fer], I had a mechanical. Some asphalt blocked my rear wheel and I had to stop to take it off.
It looked to me like Nibali had the whole climb to attack and he chose that precise moment to do it. I heard from other riders that he looked back. It was not sportsmanship.
I wouldn't say that he attacked the yellow jersey but he subsequently made Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador react, so it affected me. My feeling today is that my mechanical provoked his attack.
Compared to two years ago, I don't feel any different with one stage to go. I have more control of the situation. It helped me when Nairo Quintana attacked with 5km to go. I didn't panic. I didn't feel any stress. I put myself in time trial mode, thinking of not going too deep because of tomorrow's stage but I also didn't want to give much time to Quintana.
I'm looking forward to tomorrow. L'Alpe d'Huez is the most iconic stage and it'll be the last test. My first memory as a teenager was to look at it in a boarding room, I think there were Basso and Armstrong and I don't remember who won, but I remember I was amazed by the crowd.
I imagine there'll be a great atmosphere again tomorrow. With a lead of 2.30, I'm in an excellent position. Up to today, it was worth keeping an eye on both Quintana and Valverde but now, Valverde has lost some time, so I'll focus on Nairo exclusively.
It is a dream to win at l'Alpe d'Huez but I'll race for the yellow jersey. All the riders are a bit nervous before that climb because we know the crowd has been partying there for a few nights already. They'll be fully on. But hopefully it won't be any different than in previous years and it won't have any effect on the racing.
Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, second today and second overall
I've been pretty strong but it wasn't enough to dethrone Froome. He defended himself well. I didn't follow Nibali because I thought it was too far away from the finish.
I first wanted to make Team Sky work. I thought Team Sky would control Nibali but it wasn't the case. The last 5km seemed to be the most appropriate because the rhythm set by Tinkoff was very high.
I've missed the final touch. Tomorrow it'll be all or nothing. We'll also try to keep Alejandro Valverde on the podium.
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.